Druids, Paladins & Shamans, Oh My: Why Hybrid Classes Don’t Work

sha_wow.jpgI should preface this by saying the idea behind a hybrid class is fantastic. I’m the sort of player that can’t stand being pigeon-holed. I like flexibility. To be stuck in the same role for months, even years, in a massively multiplayer online game sounds like torture – the sort you’d endure if someone were to swap your butt with your gonads and force you to sit the same way you always have.

Ouch? You better believe it.

No one likes being sidelined, underpowered or having their class poorly understood by their peers, but these are the issues hybrids have had to endure since the dawn of massively multiplayer games. Is there a solution to the hybrid problem, or should players of classes like the Druid, Paladin and Shaman face the fact that they will never be balanced?Why World of Warcraft?
Observant folk will notice that the Druid, Shaman and Paladin are all classes from World of Warcraft. They also happen to be the top three attempts I’ve seen at experimenting with the concept – the jack of all trades, the offensive hybrid and the defensive hybrid, respectively. If you were going to design a hybrid class, these are the prototypes you’d experiment with.

I’m using World of Warcraft as my foundation for two reasons: 1) I have extensive experience playing the game (and I also use quite a few links to the WoW forums to illustrate my points) and 2) it shows how a designer’s original concept ultimately did not work in the framework of a game aimed at demographic that always wants to excel i.e. hardcore gamers. It’s important how “excelling” is measured, but we’ll get to that later.

For now, let’s discuss what “hybrid” means.

What’s a hybrid?
From dictionary.com: anything derived from heterogeneous sources, or composed of elements of different or incongruous kinds.

Okay, that looks confusing. Heck, I had to look up “heterogeneous” to remind myself what it means (from a foreign source, if you were wondering). Essentially, a hybrid is an entity made up of various, different elements.

But that’s, like, everything in the world! We need to tighten our definition and make it relevant to the classes in an MMO. So, let’s start with the “foreign sources”. Almost all fantasy MMOs revolve around the tank/damage/healer design, or “holy trinity” as it’s called in the business. These roles form the base classes, with the tank absorbing hits, the damage dealing it out, and the healer keeping the former two at their peak.

The history of the holy trinity can be traced back to pen and paper role-playing games, particularly Dungeons & Dragons. We’ll revisit this later, but for now, we have our sources.

So a hybrid can be a tank/healer (Paladin), a damage/healer (Shaman), a tank/damage (the soon to be released Death Knight) or all three (Druid). How do you go about balancing these hybrids against their one-dimensional counterparts?

1 + 1 = Learn to play
Balance, at its core, is mathematics – after all, the strength of your character is but a collection of numbers in a database. A common method to come up with initial values for statistics, damage, healing, etc. is to throw all the potential variables into a spreadsheet and graph the results of various scenarios. For example, you want a boss to take five minutes to kill using a party made up of the trinity – healer, damage and tank – and drain 50 percent of their resources. By tweaking the boss’ health, rate of damage, resistance to effects, etc., you come up with an opponent that this party can kill within the established time frame. With this prototype battle established, you can playtest to account for those annoying random occurrences or situations you didn’t factor into the original balance model.

Let’s pretend, mathematically speaking, a party needs to equal “3” in order to be considered “average”. It cannot contain more than one of each class type. Pure tank, healer and damage classes all equal one, so adding one of each gives us our three.

How is a hybrid represented mathematically? Let’s say we have our damage/healer hybrid. It’s half a healer, so that’s 0.5. It’s also half a damage dealer, so that’s another 0.5. Added together, we get one. There’s no problem, right?

Wrong. That hybrid has to fill one of our three roles completely in order to equal our average party – or “3”. If our party already has a tank and a healer, then our damage/healer hybrid must fill the role of the damage dealer. But the class is only half a damage dealer, so our party equals 2.5. In essence, the party is below average, and will have difficulty completing our five-minute boss.

This is the problem, I believe, World of Warcraft encountered early in its life cycle. People aren’t looking for a class that can’t excel at anything. Sure, players of hybrids will say they’re fine being a lesser substitute, but when push comes to shove, no one wants to be left behind because a pure class does better.

What can we conclude from all this? Mathematically speaking, the “half and half” hybrid is flawed.

But games are more than maths, of course.

The practical hybrid
You can’t have a hybrid that’s as good as the classes it is based on. Why then, would you play anything else? There has to be compromise.

Let’s go back to D&D. Now I said that the holy trinity has its origins in this pen and paper RPG. This is somewhat true. D&D had its fair share of hybrid classes. The Cleric is the best example – a fighter that can heal. D&D has been around for over two decades, and the cleric has been a part of the game since 1st Edition. So how did the designers go about balancing the Cleric?

They didn’t. Wizards of the Coasts believes it’s done a decent job of putting the Cleric in its place in 4th Edition, but even in 3.5 the designers believed the class was “good at too many things”. While the class lacked the finesse of a fighter, it possessed its core strengths – armour, hit die (health) and weapon proficiencies. Add reliable healing and multi-purpose spells on top of this, and you have a class that, on paper, is unbalanced.

I’m going to tell you a little secret: this is intentional. Something you have to understand is, if you play a hybrid, you’re naturally asking for more responsibility. This is the compromise. You have to master two or more roles instead of one. As a result, the reward should be greater. For a hybrid to work practically, it has to be a little overpowered. But only if played well. Take out the min-maxing, add in your average player, and classes like the Cleric balance out because casuals and chronic re-rollers tend to focus on one role.

But we can’t take out min-maxing, because it’s the players at the hardcore-end of the things that are going to complain. As long as it’s fun and easy, casual players don’t really care where their class falls on the power scale.

Healing factor
Healing also factors into this intentional overpowering – grab 100 players of any MMO, and more of them will say “dealing damage is more fun than healing“. Hardly scientific, but look at it this way: sure, you might like healing your mates all the time, but you’re not healing those instance bosses to death. And when you grind, those 100s of mobs don’t die under the blinding light of your healing spells. No, when you boil it down, players like dealing damage over everything else.

So to “excel”, a class must be able to deal appreciable damage in Player versus Environment content, or be able to defeat another player before they can make proper use of their abilities. It is by this metric that players determine whether a class needs to be buffed or nerfed. Of course, this is only important in a game where damage is vital to winning.

WoW has no true hybrids
The designers of World of Warcraft decided not to take the D&D way of balancing hybrid classes. Once they clicked on to the fact that “half and half” hybrids don’t work, all classes that fit into the category were fundamentally changed. Now, with the correct spending of talent points, WoW hybrids can fill the roles of the primary classes they’re based on, as long as they’re willing to not be a hybrid.

Yes, some flexibility remains, but not enough to really be called a hybrid. No, the WoW hybrid is now a class that can change its role with talent points rather than a re-roll. It’s definitely a way of solving the problem, but put simply, WoW no longer has true hybrids.

A solution?
So, what have we learned? Pure “half and half” hybrids don’t work, because they cannot excel at any role; “half and half” hybrids must be overpowered to be worth playing; players like to hurt enemies more than heal friends; and damage is the metric by which most classes should be balanced, at least in the minds of players (who are your paying customers, after all).

I don’t think it’s possible to remove damage as a metric – it’s burned too deeply into our brains that hitting a bad guy with a sword or fireball is path of least resistance to victory, loot, fame, etc. We need to forget about roles and replace them with themes, centred on damage as an equaliser.

As such, next week I’m going to put forward a replacement for the holy trinity, and a way to have true hybrids, of a sort. No tank. No healer. Everyone has their time in the spotlight.

Update: I’ve seen a few readers post about talent respecs and how this makes the three World of Warcraft classes mentioned in the article true hybrids. Sadly, this is not the case.

I won’t argue that a Paladin can’t devote itself into the Protection tree and become a great tank, or throw everything into the Holy tree and not heal like a pro – because it can. Blizzard has done an excellent job of giving hybrids a new lease on life by allowing them to specialise as one of the holy trinity. But that’s not what the article is about.

Tell me this: if a Paladin is Protection-specced, you’re not going to ask it to main heal. True, it can technically do it – the skills are there. But is it optimal or even noteworthy? Not at all. It doesn’t matter that a Paladin, with the correct gear, can serve in both roles with a simple respec. The point is that it can’t be both at the same time, and remain competitive against classes/specs that are dedicated. The case I’m making is that a true hybrid is, balance-wise, not possible in any MMO.

I’d also urge everyone not to get the game and the theory confused. This isn’t about a particular class in a particular MMO being over or underpowered. If it helps, replace WoW and Shaman/Paladin/Druid with another MMO and its offensive hybrid/defensive hybrid/jack-of-all-trades.

Editor’s note: Kotaku Australia previously posted several articles detailing the real life experiences of a powerleveller. You can begin reading the three-part series here.


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